An idea that snowballed

Ten years before the Lancia Stratos scored its first Monte Carlo win, a mid-engined supercar blasted through the Alps. Hartmut Lehbrink explains how a pure Porsche GT racer almost spoiled the Mini’s party

It was spur of the moment and it had a tinge of the impossible about it But it was to bear fruit. The Gran Premio Internacional de Turismo, Argentina’s gruelling saloon car marathon held on open roads – and won for a second straight year by Eugen Böhringer aboard a works Mercedes-Benz 300SE – had been postponed a week because of torrential rains in the San Juan region that had washed away or flooded parts of the route.

This meant that the competitors did not return to Buenos Aires until November 7, whereupon Karl Kling, the former GP driver who was Merc’s team manager, decided that it was too late to enter his cars for the 1965 Monte Carlo Rally: his equipment had still to be shipped back to Europe lock, stock and barrel, and his team had lost a crucial eight days. There was another reason not to rush back: the Monte Carlo’s regulations, as well as most of its sections and stages, favoured small and nimble front-wheel-drive cars such as the Saabs and Minis…

But Böhringer, still addicted to competition at the age of 42, had a brainwave. He telexed Porsche’s sporting director, Baron Huschke von Hanstein, to ask if he was prepared to entrust him with a 2-litre 904 GTS for the upcoming event. The new model had been rallied with some success by privateers in Spain, France and Belgium in 1964, and had shown well in the Targa Florio and Coupe des Alpes, but a long-distance mountain rally in winter was something far removed from the car’s original remit. The moustachioed baron’s answer was succinct: “You must be off your nut!” Böhringer, though, would not be denied. He telexed back: “You’re off your onion yourself. We can work wonders with that car.”

Back in Germany a fortnight later, Böhringer called on von Hanstein and, blessed with the gift of the gab like nobody else, finally coaxed him into giving the project his thumbs-up. “What! need from you is the car itself, works service, the tyres and the codriver,” Eugen explained.

As to the latter, he opted for Rolf Wütherich, the Porsche mechanic who had been seriously injured in the road crash that killed James Dean in September 1955. Wütherich knew Böhringer well, having built a Formula Junior fitted with a Mitter two-stroke within earshot of Eugen’s hotel in Rotenberg, a Stuttgart suburb. Rolf had a knack for technical things, but tended to stutter when excited – hardly ideal pace note material.

As the Monte project took shape, von Hanstein warmed to the idea and optimism soon prevailed among the Porsche tycoons: with Böhringer at the wheel of their spectacular coupe, winning the world’s most famous rally was a distinct possibility. There was, however, a potential obstacle that had to be overcome as quickly as possible. Would Böhringer’s Mercedes-Benz employers consent?

At least nothing formal stood in the way. “I never had a written contract [with Mercedes],” explains Böhringer. “Driving for them was just a matter of a telephone call or a friendly little chat over dinner, capped by shaking on the deal. No red tape at all.”

Prof Fritz Nallinger, the Mercedes director in charge of all the marque’s racing activities, was on holiday in St Moritz when the request was made, but he generously gave the go-ahead at once, ringing Ferry Porsche with the good news himself.

Once the basic decision had been taken, the Porsche racing department acted quickly and efficiently. “With such short communication channels, the Porsche people performed in one day what would have taken their Unterturkheim colleagues a week,” muses Böhringer.

Eugen was given a stock 904 for a week to familiarise himself with a car which he had never driven before, and which was very different from the big Merc saloons he was used to. The first snow had fallen in the Black Forest and he plunged in, possibly the first time a 904 had hit icy roads.

In the meantime, his Monte Carlo mount — chassis 006, a veteran of Targa Florio, Le Mans and the Tour de France — was being meticulously prepared. Its ground clearance was raised and an aluminium undertray fitted to cope with the snow and bumps. The passenger seat required by racing rules was just a dummy, so it had to be replaced by a proper one, although Wütherich would still have to live with the battery mounted in his footwell. Both the steering wheel and pedal set-up were adjustable and Böhringer quickly found a suitable long-distance driving position.

The racing 904s had no heater or demister, of course, so a petrol device — developed by Porsche in conjunction with Eberspächer during WWII to heat the engine compartments of tanks — was installed. It proved almost too effective. “We never needed to wear a pullover during the rally,” laughs Böhringer. “But the problem was that the thing could not be regulated, just switched off or on, the noise of which always frightened the officials at the checkpoints.”

The shortest of four potential rear axle ratios was chosen, reducing the car’s top speed to 230km/h. At the same time second gear was made a bit longer and third a little shorter. This meant that the drive-train was almost identical to the Targa Florio set-up used by the 1964 winners, Baron Antonio Pucci and Colin Davis. Böhringer was told that he could rev the noisy four-cylinder to over 7000rpm, but wisely decided not to exceed 6500 and instead make best use of the good torque from the Ernst Fuhrmann-devised unit

The tyre situation was overseen by Porsche engineer Peter Falk, who was also going to take part in the rally as Herbert Linge’s co-driver in a preproduction 911. It was a complex situation: Böhringer had the choice of various makes — Dunlop, Metzeler and the excellent Finnish Hakkapelita rubber — with either 125,250 or 500 spikes of differing lengths shot into every tyre to cope with the varying conditions that were typical of this event. As Porsche could only man a couple of depots, Böhringer’s local Motorsport-Club, Stuttgart came to his aid, its enthusiastic members swarming all over the Alpine sections in particular.

Serious practice began soon after the turn of the year, von Hanstein providing Böhringer with yet another 904. “The car’s road-holding was absolutely fantastic, not least because of its perfect weight distribution,” marvels Böhringer, He found it to be very user-friendly. His inexperience caused him some spins, but the car was never unduly “vicious”, and soon he was throwing it accurately into tight hairpins, a useful skill given that its turning circle was a commodious 13 metres.

Böhringer was also full of praise for the braking of this 700kg lightweight: “We would arrive at a corner, say 50km/h faster than in the preceding year with the big Mercedes, but the braking point was the same.”

Everything looked good, especially as the route was deemed to be faster and easier than ever before. Böhringer was confident of success. And then the weather turned with a vengeance. Epic snowstorms and high winds in the Massif Central ensured that this was one of the toughest Montes ever. The 904 was surely out of its depth…

Having started in Bad Homburg to reduce the overall distance to a minimum (unlike most others, who had chosen Stockholm, London, Warsaw and even Minsk), Böhringer’s 904 was one of the last — only four cars seeded at 150 and above made it through — to survive the Arctic conditions that sidelined the bulk of the field, including the works sister 904GTS of Pauli Toivonen.

Peering out through that steeply raked windscreen, 138hringer drove superbly to set the fastest time over the snow-swept St Apollinaire stage… but he had still clocked up four precious minutes of road penalties — the lifeblood of the event — on the run to Chambéry and the struggle over the first two stages, Col du Granier and Chamrousse. He clocked the fastest time over the shorter, much easier Levens stage, and arrived in Monaco in fourth place. He would have been third but for the 20 penalty points collected for an overly noisy exhaust. Ahead of him were the Citroen DSs of Lucien Bianchi and Bob Neyret, and the leading Mini Cooper S of Timo Mäkinen, the only driver still without penalty.

After a day’s rest in Monaco, just 35 cars — from the 237 that had started the event — took up the challenge of the last night, two 300km loops through deep snow and hard-bitten ice. Böhringer was just pipped on the opening Gorges de Piaon stage, and thereafter chased Mäkinen, the big Finn setting fastest time on the remaining five tests. Timo’s night was not without drama, however, and a broken contact-breaker near Sospel cost him 4min. This meant that only Böhringer and Erik Carlsson’s Saab ‘cleaned’ the section. The latter, however, was already out of contention because of iced-up carbs on the run down to Monaco; but the former, most definitely was in contention, and moved up to second after Bianchi had crashed out on the wrong tyres.

Makinen had dominated the event, but Böhringer had almost stolen the show. Von Hanstein was quietly content but would definitely have preferred first place. When Wütherich, who had shouted himself hoarse in his hopeless contest against the raucous power plant, groaned, “Huschke, water” at a checkpoint, the aristocrat ignored his plea. “Herr von Hanstein, water,” repeated Wütherich. “But your engine is air-cooled,” came the unhelpful answer — eventi laity. At which point Wütherich had to grab a handful of snow as Eugen roared away. Von Hanstein had been indefatigable and ubiquitous in his efforts. He expected the same from his men. And more. ll